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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Mental Health First Aid taught me life skills I didn’t know I needed

Taking the first step
From my very first day at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, praise for Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training travelled like folklore. Whether through personal experience or testimonials from former participants, it seemed as if everybody knew of someone who had been affected by the course.

So I was definitely curious when my turn came to participate. Even so, I was also a bit skeptical. As someone who rarely finds the time to attend seminars or professional development courses, I had reservations about how much I might take away from the experience. As it turns out, the answer was plenty.

Like physical first aid, which gives people tools to identify and support someone experiencing a crisis until professional help is available, MHFA does so for people experiencing a mental health crisis. As an avid hockey fan, I’m familiar with the importance of having defibrillators at ice rinks and knowing how to use them. But this was new territory for me.

Building the foundation
The first of the course’s three modules was self-directed using an online portal. So I logged in the evening before and began digging through the course content so I’d have a foundation for the knowledge I’d need to participate in the second module the next day.

It didn’t take long to realize that I had been overestimating my knowledge of mental health issues, even in areas as simple as language.

I had never stopped to think about the stigma attached to the phrases I was using to describe mental well-being. “That person suffers from depression” or “that mentally ill person” seemed harmless. I didn’t realize that speaking that way stigmatizes someone living with mental illness. But I learned that in most cases person-centred language is much more respectful. So, instead of saying “a person is a schizophrenic,” it’s better to say “a person living with schizophrenia.” The difference is profound because no one wants to be defined by their illness.

Think about someone with a history of substance use. When we refer to that person as a “former addict,” we’re reducing them to their disorder. Saying “an individual in recovery” is not only less stigmatizing — it recognizes that person’s dignity.

This first part of the course helped me understand some simple changes I could make (and encourage among my family and friends) that could add up to a big shift in my mindset. As with hockey, it still takes a team effort, but knowing the role I play gives me a sense of purpose and confidence.

But as it turns out, language was just the warm-up.

Class is in session
The eye-opening experience in the self-taught portion of the course had me thinking that I’d be in for more realizations in the virtual classroom.

During the introductions, I noticed how diverse our small group was. East coast to west, grad students to staff members of Fortune 500 corporations, people came together from all walks of life with one common interest: supporting the mental health of those around us (or at least being prepared to do so).

My first “aha” moment came after a scenario we watched that showed a person experiencing a mental health concern. We were then asked to think about how we might respond. Listening to the facilitator discuss that scenario was a game changer.

Imagine a casual observer watching a hockey game. Their perspective is going to be totally different from the hawk-eyed vision of a seasoned coach. In this case, our “facilitator-coach” proceeded to point out some nuances and details that flew right past me and many of the others.

When the distressed individual lamented, “What’s the point in trying?” to my untrained ear I was hearing an off-the-cuff remark. But for an experienced mental health first aider, that was a cry for help.

That stopped me in my tracks.

I started thinking of all the times I had heard someone ask that same question and never gave it a second thought. Could I have missed something? It’s not usual for phrases like this (which can signal hopelessness) to pop up in conversations. We learned to take note of similar language and to better understand when these words are harmless and when they could be cause for concern.

I had always assumed the cries for help from someone experiencing a mental health crisis would be more of a yell. It turns out they can be as silent as a whisper.

It was becoming clear that some of the most effective ways to help someone in this situation are being observant, paying close attention to their words, and offering empathy.

Confident conversations
After a generous break (and three slices of home-made pizza) I sat back at my desk for the third and final MHFA module.

While the earlier scenarios focused on knowing what to look for and what questions to ask, these new ones involved developing the confidence to engage in the hard conversations that follow.

It was like we’d been given all the equipment to make it out onto the ice, and now it was game time.

The role of a mental health first aider is not to provide professional advice to those in crisis. Rather, it’s to connect the individual with appropriate support. That’s where the training comes in. How do you provide comfort and calm? Sometimes that means striking up one of those conversations that happens before a person is ready to reach out for formal support.

The first step is figuring out if you’re dealing with a crisis and, if so, what actions are needed. While all the students were able to pinpoint which situations involved a crisis, there was a big disparity between our proposed solutions and those from our coach.

This time, the gap wasn’t due to our knowledge. It was about our confidence.

I consider myself a confident individual. In fact, I’d consider all the students in my session to be confident in their own ways. Yet none of us was prepared to be as forthright as we needed to be in the face of a crisis. Knowing when to be empathetic and when to take action was the final lesson that day. I could now say wholeheartedly that I would be much more likely to act appropriately in a crisis given my new-found confidence, rooted in knowledge.

Checking in with yourself
Any reservations I may have had about the course are now in the past. Today, I see its value as clearly as I see the importance of the defibrillator on the arena wall.

That said, I feel obliged to mention another key theme in the course I didn’t touch on: how to take care of yourself when assisting others who are experiencing a mental health concern or crisis. A key part of MHFA is the need to check in with yourself, set healthy boundaries, and ensure that you don’t bow under the weight of carrying someone else’s burdens.

Just like training for a sport, you can’t go full out every day without building in some recovery time.

While being a mental health first aider doesn’t make you a mental health professional, it does give you the knowledge and confidence to help someone in need, listen with an open mind, and respond with empathy. If that sounds like something worth doing, you can find more information, including course dates and times, here.

As I found out firsthand, there is no down side to joining this team.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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